Learning Muay Thai, the Martial Art of Thailand

Learning Muay Thai, the Martial Art of Thailand

It was like a Friday night high school football game: the flooded lights were on, the bleachers packed. The halftime performers were ready — an interpretive dance duo and a stuntman who performed highwire acrobatics with fire. But at the bar it was Singha, not Stella, being served. This was a Friday night Muay Thai match on the Thai island of Koh Phangan, and it seemed the whole community, from Thais to expats to travelers, were there to take part in the action.

And so was I. I had never seen Muay Thai before, nor (to be honest) did I really know what it was. But it was my first week working in Thailand, and despite my jet lag-induced exhaustion, when I was invited to come watch this match — one I’d been assured was “legendary” — there was no way I could say no.

What I saw was hard to describe; like dancing wrestlers, the two opponents bounced and bopped around each other, each waiting for their moment to take a jab or a kick. It was hard to tell at any point who was “ahead”. During one of the several rounds I watched, I was convinced one man was crushing the other and yet, somehow, he was not announced the winner. But even with a complete lack of knowledge of the sport, I was mesmerized watching it — each move was made with caution, care, and thought. And at the end of each round? The two athletes helped each other up and shook hands, with the highest level of respect.

After motorbiking past several Muay Thai clubs each day for several weeks, I decided I would regret not popping into one myself.

I soon learned these two rival athletes were from opposing Muay Thai clubs, and there were actually dozens of these clubs on Koh Phangan where people can live and train, or just drop in for a training session. Koh Phangan is actually quite a chilled-out island, despite its party reputation (Full Moon Parties, etc.) In recent years, it has become somewhat of a detox and yoga mecca, and I spent the first few weeks of my time on the island participating in beachside yoga classes and indulging in far too many fruit shakes.

But after motorbiking past several Muay Thai clubs each day for several weeks, I decided I would regret not popping into one myself, especially after watching that match at my very first Friday Night Lights, Thailand edition. That’s how one morning I found myself at the 8:30 am Muay Thai training under the tent at Muay Thai Chinnarach.

The training session was set for two hours and started out simply enough: some stretches and light jogging to warm up, while also showing signs of respect to the instructor. Then, in a split second, everyone was going — melting into pairs, jabbing and kicking and hopping into pens to practice. I stood awkwardly on the mat, exactly where the stretching exercise had magically evaporated a second before, and was relieved to realize I wasn’t alone: there was a young girl and a 30-something man also standing with me, confused.

Within minutes I felt like a rockstar. Yeah, I can do this! I thought as I watched myself shadowbox and round kick in a mirror set up along the edge of the open-air tent.

Before long, our stretching instructor came over to introduce himself to the “newbies”. He handed us each a piece of material, almost like an airplane seatbelt, and taught us how to wrap it properly around our fingers, hands, and wrists, forming a protective pad. From there, he taught us how to shadowbox, and came back to us every few minutes to introduce a new move for us to practice — an elbow jab, a round kick, how to block.

Within minutes I felt like a rockstar. Yeah, I can do this! I thought as I watched myself shadowbox and round kick in a mirror set up along the edge of the open-air tent.

“Why are you dancing?” my instructor laughed. I turned to look at him, a little flushed from my 90-degree round kick. “You look like you’re dancing!”

“I don’t know!” I laughed, shaking my hips as I shadowboxed some more.

He smiled widely. “Okay, enough practice — let’s get you in the ring.”

“Let’s do it!” I said confidently, heading over to one of the spare rings. He started to put on arm and leg pads.

“You’re going to attack, okay?” he said.

“Got it.”

We were off — he, just waiting for my attacks… me, having absolutely no idea what I was doing. I fell, I panted, I barely got in one jab.

“NEXT!”

I realized then that I had become part of a rotation that was coming up behind me, as partners practiced their moves in the rings, on the floor, and in front of punching bags. I practically rolled out of the ring, sweating profusely (it was March in Thailand) to guzzle some water. “Next” was being called again and it was my time back in the ring — and I performed just as terribly.

Several more rounds went by, until all of a sudden I was being instructed to put on the arm and leg pads. “You block now,” my instructor told me.

Had I not been wearing those pads (and had he actually been trying), I would have been knocked out. For all my practice in front of the mirror, I couldn’t block a single kick or punch. In fact, I could barely tell what direction they were coming from.

When a final “BREAK!” was called, I threw myself down on the ground just outside the ring and chugged the rest of my water. “It’s harder than it looks,” I said to my instructor, who just smiled.

“Punching bags next.”

It was now time for the whole group to line up in three rows to practice their punches and kicks. Me? I felt worse than one of those bags. After one or two rounds of practice, I retreated, and started removing my (now welded on) cloth hand pads.

“You’re done?” One of the other instructors was standing beside me now. I smiled weakly and shrugged.

“Will you come back?” he asked.

“You know… I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But thank you so much!”

In many ways, Muay Thai reflects Thai culture. It is understated and sometimes quiet, but mentally and physically strong, filled with both subtle and overt symbols of respect.

I got in formation with the rest of the group for some final stretches, then said my goodbyes and headed to work. When I told my colleagues what I’d been up to, they couldn’t believe it.

“You went training?!” one of my Thai colleagues said incredulously. “How do you feel?”

“Absolutely exhausted,” I told her. But as the day went on, I started to feel more and more energized, like I could run laps or swim miles right then and there. A couple nights later, I chatted to an expat who told me he had spent three years at that exact same club training to become a Muay Thai champion.

“Three years?!” I exclaimed. But as he explained, the nuance of Muay Thai is that it takes years to perfect not only the form, but also the mental state — to stay calm and wait, and predict what your opponent is going to do.

In many ways, Muay Thai reflects Thai culture. It is understated and sometimes quiet, but mentally and physically strong, filled with both subtle and overt symbols of respect. Just one training session was not nearly enough to understand the sport, but it did give me insight into a slice of Thai life.

I did go back to Muay Thai Chinnarach — three times, actually. But after that, I realized that not only was I eating about triple my usual amount of food because I was so hungry all the time, but that I missed my favorite activity: yoga on the beach.

About Erin Morawetz

Erin Morawetz is a freelance writer, communications professional, and world wanderer with a peanut allergy. She is the Brand Relationships Manager for Wanderful, an international membership community of women who travel, and the PR & Marketing Chair for the Women in Travel Summit. Erin also writes about her travel experiences and provides tips for traveling with a severe peanut allergy at www.erinonthesideoftravel.com.

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